Review: The Gates of Good and Evil, book one: The Summonstone

Although it hasn’t been out for that long, it’s still surprising it took me this long to get around to reading the first book of The Gates of Good Evil, the newest trilogy in Ian Irvine’s vast Three Worlds Cycle. Ian Irvine is my favourite living writer, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book for years.

Cover art for "The Gates of Good and evil, book one: The Summonstone" by Ian IrvineThe Summonstone occupies an odd place in the mythology of the Three Worlds. It is a direct sequel to the first part of the saga, The View from the Mirror, taking place about ten years after the events of The Way Between the Worlds and once again putting the focus on the original heroes, the sensitive Karan and Llian the chronicler.

However, this also makes it something of a prequel to the other Three Worlds books, The Well of Echoes quartet and The Song of the Tears trilogy. It’s kind of a weird space for a story to be, and the competing goals make the story a bit scattered at times.

I’m going to try to avoid major spoilers for The Summonstone itself, but by necessity I will be spoiling the other Three Worlds books a bit. You’ve been warned.

In typical Ian Irvine fashion, the story wastes no time in having basically everything go wrong. Karan and Llian’s young daughter, Sulien, awakens from a nightmare, and this is no ordinary dream, but a vision.

She has seen an army gathering within the Void, the Merdrun, and they plan to invade Santhenar and claim it for their own. Sulien is the only threat to their plans, and they plan to use dark magic to snuff out her life and pave the way for the genocide of humanity.

Meanwhile, the Merdrun’s Summonstone is waking, sending out a psychic drumming across Santhenar that twists and corrupts all it touches, driving even the best of people to madness, murder, and betrayal.

And at a time when Santhenar should be uniting against the threat from the Void, war ravages the island of Meldorin as the deranged warlord Cumulus Snoat attempts to bring the land under his dominion. Soon even the Council of Santhenar is on the run from his forces.

The pacing is breakneck, perhaps a bit too much so. I found the early parts of the book felt a little rushed. I would have enjoyed a slightly slower build-up, maybe some time to see more of Karan and Llian’s family life and how they’ve changed over the years.

I was also reminded that I’ve never been a particular fan of Karan and Llian as characters. Llian is for the most part an imbecile — though for what it’s worth he was a bit more likable this time around, even if he still doesn’t do that much — and Karan can come across as a bit melodramatic at times. Yes, I know she’s a sensitive, and she can’t help it, but whatever the cause, it still gets a bit wearing after a while.

For me, The View from the Mirror was carried by the strength of its secondary characters. The good news is that’s true here, as well. We’re reintroduced to some old favourites — oh, how good it is to see Lilis again — as well as some great new characters.

A map of the continent of Lauralin on the world of Santhenar, setting of Ian Irvine's Three Worlds novelsWilm is a simple farmboy possessed of great courage and goodness, and one of the most fiercely likable characters Ian Irvine has yet produced. Aviel is an ill-fated girl with a crippled foot, but the rare ability to create magical scent potions — which is an interesting take on magic if I’ve ever seen one. Then there’s Ussarine, the massive but good-hearted warrior woman, and the troubled twins Esea and Hingis.

I’m impressed that even after all this time Irvine is still managing to create characters and stories that feel fresh and different. Usually when an author has been around for this wrong, especially if they’re mainly writing in the same universe, they inevitably fall into tired formulas.

There are some patterns that keep coming up over and again in Ian Irvine’s books — mainly his determination to adhere to Murphy’s Law at every possible opportunity and the fact that almost all his characters seem to have dead or absent fathers — but it’s far from the rote routines other long-running fantasy series often devolve into.

Ultimately, my main complaint about this book is not my lukewarm feelings toward Karan and Llian, nor even the rushed pacing, but the Merdrun themselves.

Part of this is the weight of expectation. I had envisioned this series as telling the tale of Karan’s conflict with Maigraith, which would lead to all the troubles of Santhenar over the coming centuries. There’s a bit of that, but it takes a backseat to this totally new, and frankly less interesting, threat.

I’ve certainly seen worse villains than the Merdrun, but I can’t say I find them particularly compelling, either. So far they seem to be purely evil monsters, with none of the nuance that originally attracted me to the Three Worlds books.

At the same time, they’re still less interesting than the other purely evil threats of the series. We saw Jal-Nish and Maigraith become corrupted over time, which lent them colour and depth, and their cruelties were on full display. There’s a lot of telling, as opposed to showing, with the Merdrun.

Nor can they equal the alien horror of the creatures of the Void, being still more or less human, just really nasty humans.

Oh, and stop killing dogs, Ian. You can kill all the human characters you want, but leave the puppies out of it.

That said, there’s still plenty to like. If I’m critical of this book, it’s mainly because I hold Ian Irvine to a higher standard than most other writers. The action is still exciting, the new characters (as mentioned above) are mostly very strong, and the world-building remains as excellent as ever. Very few fantasy settings can equal the depth and texture of the Three Worlds.

And the climax of the book is absolutely spectacular. Tense, exciting, and with some fantastic twists.

Also, while The Summonstone didn’t entirely meet my expectations, it’s worth noting this is just book one of the trilogy, and Irvine’s series have had rough starts before. The first book of The Song of the Tears left me a little cold, too, but it turned into one of my all-time favourite series.

I look forward to the next installment.

Overall rating: 8/10

The Saga of Maigraith

We all have our online aliases and secret identities. In my sci-fi forum days, most knew me as ensign edwards. These days, I use my real name for most things, but in the gaming world, I still have my alter egos, and there is one that stands above all others: Maigraith.

My rogue and her "srs" faceThe story of Maigraith begins several years ago in Elwynn Forest. It was very early in my World of Warcraft career, and while I’d settled on a mage as my main for the time being, I was still trying a lot of different classes. I’d seen my father playing a rogue, and it looked fun, so I decided to make one of my own.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to stick with the character, but I wanted to see Elwynn and Stormwind, so I made her a human, figuring even if I didn’t like the class I’d at least explore some interesting areas of the game.

I gave her black hair in a ponytail, figuring that she needed a hairstyle that wouldn’t obscure her vision while she cut people up. I settled on one of the few human female faces that seemed appropriate for a killer: hard and tough-seeming, with brown eyes that looked almost red.

Finally, I named her Maigraith, after a character from Ian Irvine’s Three Worlds Cycle. All my character names in games are obscure nerdy references, usually from fantasy novels, and I especially favour the Three Worlds books. Partly because I love them, and partly because they’re not super mainstream, and therefore the names are almost never taken by other players. Legolas is never available, but Maigraith always is.

As for why I settled on Maigraith herself, I’m not sure. She was one of my favourite characters, but definitely not my all time favourite, even if I’m limiting myself just to the female cast members. For instance, I liked Ulii much more.

My Norn thief in Guild Wars 2As it turned out, I liked being a rogue. I liked it quite a bit. Little did I know it then, but I would go on to spend more time playing little Maigraith than any other video game avatar before or since. She’s never quite been my focus — she always seems to fall by the wayside — but she’s the one character I never get bored of. My original main, the mage, has been collecting dust since Cataclysm, but Maigraith endures.

And that endurance has rippled out across my gaming life.

In virtually every game I’ve played, I’ve had at least one significant female avatar. Often, it’s the character I play the most. And nearly all of them have been modeled after that most venerable of Stormwind assassins: tough-looking, dark-haired women with practical hairstyles and unusual eyes.

They’re not all exactly the same. Some have white hair instead of dark hair. Not all of them are named Maigraith. But virtually every one of my female avatars has some of the DNA of the original Maigraith. The only major exception I can think of is my Shepard in Mass Effect, who was modeled after Nova Terra from the StarCraft games.

So now I’m commanding a small army of Maigraiths and Maigraith-alikes. My rogue in WoW is still kicking around. Then there’s my warlock in the same game. My thief and mesmer in Guild Wars 2. My Templar in The Secret World. My hero in DC Universe Online. My ranger and gunslinger in Aion. My archer in Rift. My oracle in Dragon’s Prophet. My agent in Star Wars: The Old Republic. My ranger, rogue, wizard, and cleric in Neverwinter. My spellslinger in WildStar. My archer in TERA. My Castithan in Defiance.

And I’m sure I’m forgetting some. That’s not even touching on single-player titles!

My ranger and her sellsword companion in NeverwinterI’m not really sure why I started on this. I think originally I just used the name Maigraith a lot because, again, cool reference and rarely taken, and eventually it made sense to me to also copy her appearance in some way.

Plus, it’s a look I like. I’ve already spent a fair bit of time musing on why I play female characters so often, but I think a lot of it just boils down to the fact I like to play agile character archetypes, and in most games, it’s a lot easier to achieve an appropriately lithe yet athletic look with a female than a male, who tend to be roided meat mountains.

I like the tough look because these are fighters and warriors, and it makes sense for them to exude a quiet strength and determination. I give them unusual eyes to hint that they are a bit different from or superior to ordinary humans — many are literally not human. In general, I design them with the idea that they are practical, capable individuals and try to make their appearances reflect that.

And to be honest, most of it just boils down to a sense of tradition. I’m very fond of patterns and habits, so once I started cloning the original Maigraith, I kept at it largely out of inertia and a fondness for the sense of history behind my self-created archetype.

I suppose some might find it odd I spend so much of my free time pretending to be a dark-haired woman with a large sword… but if I ever reach the point where that’s the weirdest thing about me, I’ll count myself lucky.

My character in DefianceBut I am comfortable with Maigraith as my face in the gaming world. She’s nothing like me, and that’s speaks well in her favour.

And if you’re wondering, it’s pronounced may-gray-ith.